Readers for this week’s mailbag had plenty of questions relating to Markese Stepp, backups who could surprise, defensive backs, and head coach Clay Helton.
Q: I see a little bit of a slow response generally from coaches when it comes to younger players development. As a fan, I read practice reports from summer and fall camps about up and coming younger athletics. You wait for them to take their chances, and see them younger flash with little opportunities, later to realize that they should have had more play-time all along.
This is not just for true for Helton. Pete Carrol also had a babysitting approach getting his players ready. This was true with Kiffin and Sark. We all wanted Allen Bradford, Ronald Jones and many players get more playtime earlier.
Is it just a fan base frustration, or do I not see something that the coaches know and these players need more time?
I look forward to a larger load of Stepp against Arizona. I wish it was not at Vavae Malepeai[‘s expense]. How do you think Stepp will manage more than ten carries?
Also, I am a little frustrated with being promised a fast pace air-raid, only to be told after ND game that we may get an up-tempo offence finally against Arizona. When Steve Sarkisian arrived, his spring and fall camp promise was getting USC to 95 offensive plays a game. Somehow that pretty much never materialized. Graham Harrel’s plan before the season was same, oddly he mentioned a similar number. I am a little bit confused because this plan was never acted. But after the ND game, Harrel explained in a post-game presser that he noticed the offence played much better when we played up-tempo. Helton also mentioned that the play calls arrive faster in the second half of the ND game that help increase the tempo. Which is a little bit confusing for me, since Harrel comes from an air-raid fast-paced offensive system. Can you explain at what stage of the season, we had decided to run a slow-paced offence? Isn’t this a little confusing that USC runs air-raid at a slow pace and is it even possible?
A: Lots to unpack here.
For the first question, regarding a slow response from coaches to put young players on the field, I think it has to do with the idea that fans look at upside and coaches look at downside. Now that’s not 100% for every single situation, but I think it’s a large part of it (and, spoiler alert, we’ll get into the Markese Stepp situation in a little bit). If a player flashes the ability to go 80 yards, make spectacular catches, or unleash a dominant pass rush move, fans get a glimpse of that and assume it’s going to happen every time. For a coach, he might see the 80-yard run done by a guy who also doesn’t secure the ball well when he runs through traffic. The catch is made by a guy who doesn’t run every route well and takes plays off. The pass rush move is done by a guy who can’t anchor against the run.
If the negative aspect of that guy’s play shows up, it’s the coaches who have to answer for why that happened and why the turnover margin looks like it does, or why the opponent rushing numbers are what they are. I think sometimes there’s a desire to stick with a guy you’re comfortable is going to do it the right way every time, even if it means settling for a five-yard gain rather than rolling the dice with a big play. No coach is going to keep a guy on the bench who they feel can make big plays and isn’t a liability in any aspect.
But I can go back and forth with the fans and coaches’ perspective, because while I understand wanting to limit errors and go with what coaches feel is the safer option, I think there’s something for utilizing talent and putting it in a position where it can succeed, so players can build that confidence. We certainly might have the opportunity to see how that plays out with the defensive back position this weekend.
As for Stepp and managing 10 carries, I think Stepp will be just fine with however many carries he gets against any defense.
And as for the pace of play, that’s something we’ve as a collective media have been surprised by. I do understand wanting to go a little bit slower in the first half against Notre Dame, simply because it’s Kedon Slovis’ first start since getting knocked out, and playing at Notre Dame Stadium as a true freshman is not easy. Tempo will be one of a few keys I’ll be watching on Saturday. At this point, the most consecutive football Slovis has played at this level is six quarters and two snaps, so the fact that he’s playing at the Coliseum and has a little momentum from his performance last weekend going for him, I do expect they’ll run things a little quicker on Saturday.
Q: In your opinion, why has it taken so long for Markese Stepp to get more involved in the offense? He seems like he could be a special back with his size, good hands, and good speed, and should result in more touches a game. Is is more of learning the playbook, or Clay’s penchant to try and distribute carries evenly and not have a feature running back?
A: I think it goes back to trust. It’s as simple as the coaches trusting Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr more than Stepp.
Stepp said this week there were things he needs to continue working on after that Notre Dame game, and one thing he specifically mentioned was not switching hands while running through defenders. There was definitely a run where he got the ball well away from his body with Notre Dame defenders nearby. While it’s easy to just take away from that play that it’s a great run, being loose with the ball like that does not go unnoticed by coaches. And that was certainly billed as a game where a single turnover could cost you a win. Aside from that, Stepp still has some distance to cover when it comes to catching up to the other two with pass blocking and catching the ball out of the backfield.
If it were up to me, with three losses already, I’d feed him the ball and try to turn this offense into one that defenders don’t want to go up against. But I understand it might be tough to do that when you have a pass-first mentality and you look out and see those three wide receivers you have at your disposal.
Q: Whatever happened to Briton Allen? I understand he plays safety and our injury problems are at CB. However, with all that’s going on with the secondary, I would think at some point he would be called on to contribute. The reports from training camp were promising. Has he seen the field at all this season? If not, do you think it’s a case of Clancy not yet trusting the true freshman to avoid big-play mistakes?
A: We’ve heard a lot about cross training guys at two different spots (Chase Williams at nickel and safety, Greg Johnson at nickel and corner). Briton Allen spent virtually all of spring at cornerback, then was moved to safety. Clancy Pendergast mentioned this week that they’re trying to have certain guys stick at one spot for a bit. He specifically mentioned why a guy like Kaulana Makaula came in for Greg Johnson against Notre Dame, and said having Chase Williams work at three positions (both safety spots and nickel) ran the risk of getting guys to the point where they are good at a lot of things but great at nothing. So when you look at the safety spot now, with Talanoa Hufanga, Isaiah Pola-Mao, Williams, C.J. Pollard and even Jordan McMillan, the Trojans are pretty set at safety.
Q: While I’d hate to see a redshirt year burned with only 6 games to go, why are the coaches so reluctant to put Keenan Christon out on the field for 4 games to return kicks and run some jet sweeps to add an infusion of speed to the team?
On a similar note, why is Velus Jones never placed in the slot to run some jet sweeps or bubble screens or used to blow the top off of a defense to open up the underneath passing game for the possession receivers?
A: I have no doubt that Kenan Christon will be on the field for four games this season. I think the coaches are just trying to figure out which four games. It would certainly make sense to get Christon involved with Vavae Malepeai out for a little while, but the coaches are also very comfortable with Quincy Jountti.
The wide receiver rotation seems to be what it is at this point. USC just doesn’t seem to be running enough plays to where receivers are needing to rotate in and out. I’m surprised we’ve pretty much seen nothing of Velus as a receiver this season because he really had a good fall camp. This offense doesn’t have a lot of pre-snap motion, so there probably isn’t much in the way of jet sweeps and I think the guys ahead of him are better receivers.
Q: In your opinion, if heaven forbid we lost our next two games to Arizona and Colorado and were mathematically eliminated from contention on winning the PAC-12 South, even without a new AD in place, would the school move on from Clay Helton mid season or would they still wait till the season was over? My feeling is the longer we wait, the more detrimental it is to the 2020 recruiting class which will have a far greater negative impact than just the 2020 season.
A: In a story from Ryan Kartje of the LA Times, USC interim athletic director Dave Roberts said: “I think it’s a fair statement to say that between now and the end of the season, unless something extraordinary happened, Dave Roberts isn’t going to be stepping in there, making the decision that really I think would be the province of a new AD.”
I could see “something extraordinary” referring specifically to something off the field. But I could also see “something extraordinary” absolutely meaning losing to Arizona and Colorado. If that happens, I don’t think it would be out of the realm of possibilities that a move could be made.
But honestly, I don’t think USC should make any decision solely because of that early signing period. It’s important, but not at the expense of rushing anything. We’ve seen how players use the transfer portal (and that’s only going to increase), and a guy like Chris Steele signed with Florida, enrolled there, and is starting for USC this fall. With a small senior class and now the ability to hold onto scholarships and fill a ton of spots next spring and summer with transfers, it’s far more to make the right decision than to just get something done so the head coach has extra time to recruit.
Q: If/when Clay Helton is fired, do you think any other Power 5 (or even Group of 5) schools would call him for their openings? Do you think he would even take those calls, or do you ever get a sense that CCH knows he’s not HC material or prefers being an assistant coach?
A: I do think that if Clay Helton is not coaching at USC, he’ll have an opportunity to be a head coach elsewhere. I don’t know if he’d immediately go to a Power 5 school, or even a Group of 5 school as a head coach. But he’d get there at some point in the future.
Q: Erik, in your opinion as fan as well as you opinion as a journalist, what are the legitimate expectations for a USC head football coach over 5, 10, and 15 years?
A: Okay, here are my legally-binding-and-not-at-all-made-up-on-the-spur-of-the-moment numbers.
With its history and location, USC should be in the College Football Playoff discussion just about every year. I don’t mean they should be a final four team every year. But heading into the season, USC should be talked about as one of the two or so favorites in the Pac-12, which would make them a potential top-four team. USC should be in the Pac-12 championship game three out of every five years, which accounts for rebuilding years and seasons where things just don’t break the right way. USC should win a Rose Bowl/CFP/New Year’s Six game two times every five years. USC should make the College Football Playoff twice every five years. And USC should win a national championship once every 15 years.
And just for fun, I looked up Ohio State’s last 5/10/15 years just to compare what they’ve done to what my hypothetical here would look like.
Conference championship game appearances in five years: 3 (I said 3)
Rose Bowl/CFP/New Year’s Six game wins in five years: 5 (2)
College Football Playoff appearances in five years: 2 (2)
National Championships in 15 years: 1 (1)
So I guess I think it should look more like Ohio State’s recent run than Alabama or Clemson’s, where USC is very, very good three out of every five seasons, with a few seasons where it ticks up to truly great. But a sub-.500 record is not in the equation.
Q: I was surprised to see true freshman and lightly recruited Makaula step in to play safety for some of the ND second half and Jimmons step in to spell McKenzie at offensive guard in the second half. I know we were hit with injuries in the second half , but these two guys were the last 2 I would think would step into those positions in a big game. Have they really stepped up their game and shown some ability? Looks like Makaula bypassed Pollard and Briton Allen, while Jimmons moved from OT to pass a number of backup guard options.
A: I was asked which true freshmen I could see in the defensive backfield jumping in if called upon (with Chris Steele a given and Max Williams still injured) and I thought it would be Kaulana Makaula. Smart player with good instincts. I wasn’t guessing that he’d actually play significant minutes this season, but it’s not a huge surprise when he started playing that nickel spot.
Jimmons has an attitude about him that just seems to work at guard. He was in on the long Stephen Carr run against Washington as well. He’s definitely found a home along the offensive line.
Q: I’m not optimistic, but what do you think the chances are that USC’s football team builds on the second half of the ND game and brings that to the UA game and all the games following?
A: The offense has to get things figured out quicker against Arizona than they did against Notre Dame. There are going to be a few wrinkles from the Wildcats, just like there have been from every defense the Trojans have seen this season. I think there will be some tempo with USC playing at home and not being as worried about the Arizona defense as they were with Notre Dame, and I do think the Trojans put up some points on Saturday. Defensively, that’s a rough spot to be in if those defensive backs and Palaie Gaoteote are out against Khalil Tate and the Arizona offense. It’ll be up to the defensive line to really control this game on that side of the ball. I think the Trojans are up to it.
Q: Why are the linebackers so ineffective this year? Did the scheme change? The position seems more like an afterthought than a presence.
A: John Houston and Palaie Gaoteote are Nos. 1 and 3 on the team in tackles, so they are definitely having a presence this season. I think it’s just a matter of them having some deficiencies in their game. Houston is not a wrecking ball kind of linebacker who is running over blockers and standing running backs up in the hole. And Gaoteote, while he does have that ability, isn’t always right with his first step and is still learning and gaining experience in how to trust his eyes and get to the ball while taking the right angle.
Q: There’s a ton of noise out in the media about Helton’s inevitable (just reading what’s out there) future. Recruiting is way off, and the season is in real jeopardy.
How is the team handling all the distractions?
A: If you play football at USC, you’re used to playing through distractions. There is still plenty of positivity from the players and a sense that they don’t want this season to finish the way 2018 did.
Q: When/If USC makes a coaching change who do you think would be the biggest surprise players in terms of contributing on the field?
I mean the guys that would cause us fans to say, WOW what took so long to get him on the field or why wasn’t he playing earlier?
A: I think this is a little bit of a loaded question, and I think there are almost always other factors than it being as simple as “not playing, now playing.” There could be guys who fit systems better than the one being employed now, but I think the biggest factor is guys getting an additional offseason. That is such a variable in your equation that it’s tough to dial it down to simply being a product of a potential coaching change.
All that being said, this is where I really miss not being able to watch practices. I understand coaches wanting to be protective and not letting anything slip that might help an opponent, but we used to be able to learn so much about the young players and the backups and how they were performing and progressing.
For me, I think Ralen Goforth fits as both an answer to your question and an example of my answer. When he eventually plays, I have a feeling that fans are going to ask why it took so long (even though he’s still just a true freshman), but it could be as simple as he was behind older players who grasp the system better and he needed that extra time. Max Williams I think is purely injury related. That’s a guy would have been in the mix from Day 1 if healthy. Justin Dedich is in a really tough spot, because I think Brett Neilon has been good enough to stay on the field, but how many seasons can you go without getting Dedich some real playing time? I think all the wide receivers and tight ends probably fit here, since there is a ton of talent there.
But truthfully, I don’t know that many guys fit your question, and that’s one of the big problems right now. Guys don’t seem to be getting pushed for jobs and that speaks to depth and the overall talent level.